Circumnavigating Ellesmere Island

May 10, 2011
Outside Magazine


Canada’s Ellesmere Island, a 75,000-square-mile chunk of ice and rock off Greenland’s southwest coast, has never been circumnavigated. Two men hope to change that fact. Three days ago, 26-year-old photographer Erik Boomer and 65-year-old writer John Turk kicked off a planned 1,485-mile expedition. Over the next 96 days, they'll attempt to drag, sail, and paddle their kayaks across the ice and ice flows that form Ellesmere’s perimeter. It's a hard expedition. Polar bears far outnumber the island’s 137 residents, and the diaries of early explorers like Robert Peary, which often serve as guidebooks for repeat (or partial repeat) polar expeditions, have been rendered useless by climate change and melting ice.

“Essentially, we’ll be the first people to go into this environment in its current state,” Turk told Canoe & Kayak magazine. “So we’re kind of winging it as we go.”

The expedition originally included whitewater paddler Tyler Bradt, but he dropped out in March after breaking his back kayaking a 100-foot waterfall in Oregon. Turk and Boomer, who had met only a few times through Bradt, decided to carry on without him. We’ll be following their updates with Q&As and podcasts every few weeks for the next three months. In this first dispatch, Turk talks about the seasons of ice, combating exhaustion, and the expedition’s first crux.

How do you plan to travel everyday for three months?
We’ll be moving 15 hours a day, every day. This time of year the ice is hard and travel is fast. We’ll slow down for a month during slush season, and we’re hoping to have open water toward the end of the expedition so we can paddle and knock out the last thousand miles.

How do you pick your lines through the ice? Just paddle and pray it works out?
It’s like a first ascent rock climb, you just pick a crack in the ice and follow it. The important thing is that we’re guaranteed to make wrong decisions. We have to keep our sense of humor and our faith in each other. If we start arguing, it uses up energy, and we don’t have energy to waste.

Do you know Boomer well?
No. We hardly know each other at all. But we’re getting to know each other really well now. Not having Tyler along is tough emotionally. We miss his laugh and big smile. Can we pull it off without him? I don’t know. We just have to take it one step at a time, but if I thought it was suicidal I’d turn back now.

Later this week, you’ll paddle around the island's southwest corner, one of the expedition's first cruxes. Tell us about it.
We’ve got Hellsgate coming up; that’s a pretty scary place. It’s open water and there are whirlpools, swirling ice, and really fast currents. It’s a crapshoot out there. We don’t know exactly how we’re going to deal with it.

Call us in a week when you’re past it?
Yeah, as soon as it makes sense.

--Kyle Dickman

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